I was surprised, and pleased, to see Stan Horzepa mentioned my blog in his weekly “Surfin'” feature on the American Radio Relay League’s website.
I’ve been a ham for nearly 40 years. Outside of family, it’s the longest running constant in my life.
My “Elmer,” as hams call their mentor or teacher, was Bob Semensohn. I have no idea where he is today. I remember little about him, other than he played piano and was helpful in my passing the exam.
Things have changed now, but you needed Morse Code proficiency to get a ham license back in the late 60’s. I started with a Novice license and then moved up to my Advanced.
The Novice exam was proctored by a fellow ham. The Advanced meant a trip to Lower Manhattan and the FCC office in the Customs Building, right near where the World Trade Center would later rise… and fall.
I thought it was cool to go, because I got to take the morning off from school.
I easily passed the written test and prepared for the Morse exam. I sat alone at a wooden school desks – one of a few arranged in a line.
A punch tape ran through some sort of mechanical reader to produce the code. It began – “dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah, dit dit dit dah.” Three “V’s,” the universal letter group sent for testing and setting up equipment.
As the real text of the test began, I started to write. The Morse was being sent at 13 words per minute – basically, a character every second. And then, it happened.
From the Hudson River, a block or two away, a ship’s horn sounded. It was loud… and I was already nervous. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I missed 15-20 seconds. Just as important, it threw me off my rhythm.
To pass, you needed to copy one straight minute of the five in the test and I did… but barely. But the test didn’t end there.
The final step was sending Morse code. A simple key was bolted to the table. The examiner, a cigar chomping Mr. Finkleman, stepped up to listen.
I was so nervous, I couldn’t send cleanly. My hand was shaking… and it was the hand that was supposed to tap out letters.
Finkleman looked down and told me to head to the hallway and get a drink from the fountain. The hall was poorly lit, drably painted and had linoleum tiles. There was no confusion that government offices occupied this building.
When I walked back in, he asked me to send, “Federal Communication Commission.” I was still nervous, but I began to tap out, “dit dit dah dit, dit” and he stopped me. I had only sent “fe.”
“You pass,” he smiled.
It probably wasn’t a big day for Mr. Finkleman, but it sure was for me! Nearly 40 years later, I still remember it as if it was yesterday.